L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Monday, February 11, 2013

Right and wrong

So, it's like this:

I ride the streetcar home from work on Mondays and Thursdays, both ways on Saturdays.  I never sit on the streetcar.  I have a very much preferred place to stand, where I can lean against the wall, be out of everyone's way, and not have to hold on to anything.  I'd rather not touch anything in that sort of public setting.

I was coming home today, leaning into my discrete corner.  We came to a stop and an older woman with a walker activated the ramp and got on.  I often see this same woman on the streetcar, always the same rather ratty hooded sweatshirt, baseball cap worn over the hood, sweatpants, puffy white athletic shoes.  She usually gets off at the same stop I do.  She's a round little thing, very chatty, with a chirpy voice.  She's often sitting with a similarly shaped and walker-ed friend.

Even though there are very clearly posted instructions to reserve seating for disabled passengers, no one got up or offered her a seat.  Sitting nearest her was a woman, probably in her twenties, dressed in what I'd call the Northwest Princess look: shiny, metallic parka; jeans; brightly polished clog-ish things on her feet; a little knit cap that looked like it might have been fabricated by the indigenous peoples of some "Third World" country.  Everything was perfectly pristine, studiously casual, and obviously expensive.  She had a hard, cold look on her face.  I watched her manicured fingers flick along her cellphone, and then she'd put her head back and close her eyes for a few seconds, as though she was very, very tired.  An older man - sixty-five-ish? - with gray hair and a cap with an airline insignia on it was sitting next to her.  They didn't speak to each other at all, so I didn't know if they were together.

I stared at the seated woman, made eye contact, then looked over to the woman with the walker, but the young woman didn't follow my gaze.  I stared at her again, but she didn't look back.  I stared at her.

And then....  Low blood sugar?  Some faulty switch related to my PTSD?  Or maybe just some inherent oversensitivity, some lack of ability to process and not be overwhelmed by all the awful things in the world, things that we all hear about and see constantly these days?  There's so much wrong.  And I want to make it better.  And I can't.  And it makes me so mad.  I don't know what any of that might have added up to in that moment.  Whatever it was, I didn't see it coming.  I didn't know I was about to make an ass of myself.

"Hey, why doesn't someone get up so this woman can sit down!"

As everyone turned and stared at me, the woman with the walker said, "I don't need to sit down".  Which put an immediate dent in my crusade, of course.  Actually, I'd probably scared her.

I turned to the young woman who was sitting closest to her.  "Why don't you get up so she can sit down?"

"She said she didn't need to sit down", she said flatly, coldly, her legs crossed, her arms folded.

"You should have offered her the seat.  Those are the rules.  You're supposed to get up when someone needs a seat."

There's a moment of blank, at this point.  It was all so quick.  I can't remember if anything more was said by either of us.  And then I reached out to pull off her hat.


When G and I went to see Tosca a few weeks ago, we had two very silly young women sitting behind us, whispering to each other, playing with one of their phones, constantly giggling.  Before Act III began, we were able to move and get away from them.  But during the intermissions I'd told G how I'd fantasized about dealing with them.  The first fantasy was to snatch the cellphone, jog over to the Men's room, and toss it in the garbage.  The second was to snatch off the shoe of the closer one - she was wearing a short dress, but for some reason she had her legs crossed like a guy, ankle to knee; it would be easy to reach that shoe - and jog over to the Men's room and lob it into a toilet.  The beauty of either of these schemes would be that my point would be dramatically made, and that they'd be kept very busy with search and rescue and, therefore, far away from us.  Some scruples and the realization that those sorts of wacky-movie moments almost never go as planned was more than enough to keep either scenario from getting beyond the fantasy stage.  That and the thought of what would certainly be G's horrified reaction.


And those things almost never go as planned.  See, I thought I'd just grab that cute little hat off her head and toss it out the doors of the streetcar - we were stopped at a streetcar stop, the doors were open - and she'd have to go after it.  I'd already played this out in my head; I'd been fantasizing again, like at the opera.  So maybe I was "cocked and loaded" and when, in the already alarming tension of the moment, I somehow managed to lose the distinction between fantasy and reality, it was just my next move.  Like, at that point, I couldn't stop the next domino.  So I reached out toward the top of her head.

"Don't touch me", she said flatly, putting her hands up but otherwise barely moving.  Waved off, I came in again, reaching for the hat.  The same defensive but strangely calm and economical movement from her.  The man next to her half rose in his seat.

"You better stop it.  That's my daughter," he said, then sat down.

"Oh, great job you did with her.  Is that how you taught her?  To think about other people?  You must be really proud.  You both ought to be ashamed...."  Etcetera.

The streetcar had left the stop.  I said to I don't know who, "I wasn't going to attack her, I was just going to throw her hat out the door so she'd have to get up."  Like somehow that made sense, would somehow rally everyone to my cause.  Like everyone would go, "Oh, yeah, what a clever idea - bravo!"  I wasn't really able to focus - mentally or visually - but I think I was sort of being ignored at this point.  Which, in retrospect, is probably preferable to other possible reactions; I'm glad no one took me for a more serious threat and intervened.  Someone had taken my place in the corner, so I just stood there in front of the father and daughter, the adrenalin starting to drain away, mortification flooding in.

They sat, looking straight ahead, not talking to each other.  It was like nothing strange had happened at all, like this situation was normal for them somehow.  But people react differently to shock, I know.  Maybe they were just afraid, and it was fear that made them seem so expressionless, so unaffected.  But I can see now that my self-righteousness, my assumptions and judgements about them, my lack of compassion for them - their lives, their humanity - pretty much precluded any understanding of their actions or reactions.

I made one last reflexive, "you ought to be ashamed," and moved over to the other side of the streetcar, my knees rattling in my pant legs.  I stood near the woman with the walker, who had turned completely around to face the window, looking out.  

I gave her a light pat on the arm.  "I'm sorry, I really didn't mean to make such a scene.  I see you on here all the time.  I know you always sit down."

"Oh, I didn't need to sit down."  She didn't look at me.  Probably still afraid.

"OK, but she was supposed to ask...." 

The young woman and her father got off soon after.  No parting words, still no signs from them that anything odd or disturbing had happened.  I looked around the streetcar, seeing if anyone was looking at me, wondering what they would be thinking.  Was I just some crazy, scary guy?  Someone who'd made a fool out of himself in public?  You don't look at people like that.  No one was looking at me.  I stared out the window.

As we got close to our stop, the woman with the walker pushed the button to cue the ramp, moved her walker closer to the door.  Still without looking at me, she told me to, "Have a nice day."  I told her I was getting off, too.  The streetcar stopped and we waited together for the ramp to extend.  She got off, then I got off.  And when I passed her on the sidewalk, I apologized again.

"I'm really sorry for blowing up like that."

"That's alright. Have a good day"

"It's just that people are so unkind these days...."

"Oh, I know, dear."


When I got to the apartment, first thing I did, after putting down my things, before I woke up the dog to take him out, I walked into the bathroom.  I didn't know why.  I stood in front of the mirror, looking at myself.  Looking closer, trying not to look away.  Trying to see something in my eyes.  I took my glasses off and put them back on, trying to see myself.

There's right and there's wrong.  I think somewhere there's probably a true definition of a real, humane right.  But most of us have a very subjective understanding of what that word means.  And most of the wrong done in the world comes from those who believe they are doing right.  That kind of "right" has blinded humanity, has brought havoc and suffering all through history.

I had a perfectly fine day.  I was in a good mood.  Everything was normal.  And then I totally lost it.  In my zeal to implement "the right thing", I became something that I couldn't recognize, couldn't - at least in that moment - control.  So when I got home and felt this need to look at myself in the mirror, maybe I was trying to reassure myself, trying to make sure I knew who I was.  Because in that moment on the streetcar, in the frantically aggressive certainty of the rightness of my belief, I completely lost myself.  And it was very frightening.  As I write this, it still is.